In The Guru of Love, Samrat Upadhyay fine-tunes the preoccupations in his first publication, the award-winning collection of short stories, Arresting God in Kathmandu. Readers will find many similar themes-aspiration and its thwarting, love and lust of many kinds, empathetic but refreshingly unsentimental portrayals of lives made difficult when their ordinariness runs into modernity and its new gray areas, and characters who wander the streets of Kathmandu both questing and escaping.
The problem, I suspect, will be getting readers in Nepal and the rest of the subcontinent past the title, which seems egregiously orientalising of the author's own country. Once you manage to pick up the book and read it, though, you realise that as titles go, it isn't entirely inappropriate, and more than being exoticising, is a half-serious, half-ironic comment on the protagonist Ramchandra.
A mathematics teacher in a government school who also gives private tuition, Ramchandra's life changes from a normal lower middle class existence when he gets a new tutee, Malati. Malati is a single mother in her early 20s who desperately wants to pass the SLC examination so she, too, can move up from a life mired in poverty, seemingly doomed to revolve around her baby, a temperamental, often abusive stepmother, and the latter's small chicken farm in the yard of their shack.
Ramchandra has been married for 15 years to his devoted wife Goma, and has two children, Sanu and Rakesh. Torn between an exciting new love, which seems to offer a vision of beauty and expansiveness missing from his struggling existence, and the deep tenderness and sense of accountability he feels towards his family, Ramchandra tells Goma about his budding affair. She reacts in typical Nepali fashion, moving to her maiti. Eventually comes Goma's startling decision to move back and ask Malati to share their home, and Ramchandra's bed.
It's tempting to see this the way Ramchandra's colleague Shailendra Sir does, as a regression to the "old ways", with the husband taking a second wife even as the first martyr-like spouse lives under the same roof. But that makes for a rather dissatisfying reading of the characters of The Guru of Love as archetypes, the novel itself as simple realist representation, and Upadhyay as a spokesman of all things Nepali, or at least Kathmandu. As in Arresting God in Kathmandu, here too instantly recognisable streets, turns of phrase and gestures simulate a Kathmandu we all know. But the characters are usually not people we all know, but familiar figures somehow distorted, so their choices and actions illuminate concerns and trains of thought usually sublimated.
A good example of this sublimation is in The Guru of Love itself. While the reasons for Ramchandra's enthusiasm for his student are laid out, obliquely, as is perhaps the only way to explain "love", it is difficult to understand why Malati decides to get involved with him. She seems to get into the affair almost unthinkingly, saying little, just responding to Ramchandra's overtures. Malati may be unconventional in many ways, but she adheres to given ways of behaviour at other times. Her behaviour is simultaneously instinctive and thought out, something that makes her, more than Goma, a rather everyday sort of person. As for Goma, she is hardly making a fool of herself. Instead of seeing her as an embodiment of female (Hindu, South Asian) "power", it is equally possible to see her as an individual within a cultural context that allows her to mete out punishment in a particular way that not many people have the stomach for-by not just complicating her husband's joy in his extramarital affair or forcing him to see how untenable his attempt to balance two intimate loves is, but also by inflicting pain on herself.
Goma's gesture is so dramatic, it will likely dominate most discussions of The Guru of Love, and morph into debating Upadhyay\'s preoccupation with the private and public sexual proclivities urban Nepalis could have, which is unfortunate. The book is stronger on other points, and in any case Upadhyay explored that subject well enough in Arresting God in Kathmandu. This new novel does other things, and it does them quite well. Upadhyay has a fine eye for nuances of class, for "old" communities versus newer ones, and for the differences between, say, those who are from Kathmandu and those from a humble hinterland background who, once in the capital, must try that much harder to survive, and dream that much longer about owning a piece of the city.
Also interesting is how Upadhyay weaves the jana andolan into his story. Initially it appears in the narrative in an arbitrary manner, but as it appears and disappears, surfacing at stray moments to become part of the fabric of lives that Upadhyay creates, occupying most of the characters only peripherally, preoccupied as they are with matters of more immediate resonance, until the movement itself gains such momentum, it is impossible to ignore.
This is not to suggest that Upadhyay tells "the truth" about a certain period in Kathmandu life or "exposes" it. His realism doesn't simply reflect reality-that would render much of his work ineffective, if only because it might be hard to believe the people in them and the things they do. Instead, Upadhyay shows how one understanding of a society or a city can be used to illuminate a few of the many possibilities for life and behaviour that it throws up.
Upadhyay is open to the criticism of 'pandering' to a Western audience, an allegation often levelled against Indian writers. And, to be sure, on occasion he explains too much, perhaps, for the reader familiar with or from Nepal. But the criticism, so easy to make, does not really stick. Some things about The Guru of Love are far too local. The details of the city, for instance, will only make sense to someone familiar with Kathmandu. Other aspects of the book are what might be called "universal", at least to people who live with certain concepts of love, fidelity and loss, of how children unwittingly grow up as they absorb the pain of their parents lives, of 'moving up' in the world, of how orders change, but so often only to make worse the frustration with which the lower middle class grapples. When these two come together they complicate the story, as well as its reading, no matter where you're from. It is unfortunate-and more exoticising than anything Upadhyay himself has written-that the blurb for The Guru of Love mentions spirituality so forcefully. This reader saw thankfully little of it in the book itself, unless you count attention to quotidian details and Ramchandra's final sense of contentment despite all the complications, as more indicative of a "spiritual" life than similar developments in other novels simply because this is Kathmandu.
The Guru of Love is a more mature work than Arresting God. The lightness of touch works well here to carry through a plot that could get weighed down in melancholy. Upadhyay does not overstate things, or make overt sentimental appeals. The story, deftly plotted, moves at a momentum that engages the reader even in those phases where not much is "happening" to the characters. The challenge for Upadhyay will perhaps be greater now. He will have to be cautious that his themes do not wear too thin, that he does not tell too much of the same story. And hopefully, now that he is being hailed as a major new writer, his publishers will not feel pressured to harp on quite so much about spirituality.
(Anagha Neelakantan is a writer based in Kathmandu. The book is now available in a Rupa special Nepal edition in Kathmandu book shops for Rs 250)